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Divided Council gives Havana's Partial Approval for Entertainment

Did the council overreach? Was it government gone awry? That's what two councilors said of their fellow members.

Joe Welch, a sound abatement expert, told the Town Council on Monday that Havana's would have better soundproofing than T.F. Green Airport. (Photo: Mark Schieldrop)
Joe Welch, a sound abatement expert, told the Town Council on Monday that Havana's would have better soundproofing than T.F. Green Airport. (Photo: Mark Schieldrop)

Even better soundproofing than what’s at T.F. Green Airport in Warwick wasn’t enough to sway two members of the East Greenwich Town Council to vote in favor of Havana’s getting a full entertainment license at the former Post Office building on Main Street. 

In a 2-2 vote Monday night, the request by 818 Restaurant Group LLC. to open a Cuban-themed restaurant and nightclub in the historic building with full entertainment was rejected by the council. 

Instead, the applicants got approval for a restaurant and some entertainment — vocal and instrumental — but no DJs, karaoke or amplified bands. That came in in a last-ditch, 3-1 vote to stave off a full rejection by the council, which was sharply divided with one side saying Main Street isn’t the right place for a nightclub and the other arguing the council was overstepping its bounds in what Councilor Jeffrey B. Cianciolo said was “overreaching.”

Council President Michael Isaacs was the deciding vote through it all and he said he heard many arguments that the council needs to treat everyone equally. The main premise is that if entertainment is allowed on the waterfront, the council can’t discriminate against entertainment on Main Street. And for Isaacs, that wasn’t enough of a compelling argument.

“The reason we have different zoning is to treat different areas of the town differently,” Isaacs said. “I think it’s appropriate to treat a restaurant on Main Street differently than a restaurant on the waterfront.” 

Restaurants on the water have been in place for 30 to 40 years, he said, and there are a lot of procedures down there in terms of dealing with noise and other issues.

Referring to the former Rok Bar and Grill, which caused a host of problems for the town relating to noise and disorderly behavior after closing time, Isaacs said the business plan pitched by Havana’s seems awfully similar.

“Until Rok bar and Grill came, we did not have a nightclub type of restaurant on Main Street and what troubles me about this business plan is it sounds very much like the description of Rok Bar,” Isaacs said.

Councilor Mark Watkins Gee has spoken against the proposal since the beginning of the first of three public hearings on the issue and on Monday night, he said he felt the business concept didn’t fit the character of the town. 

“I don’t know how to describe what the character of the town is,” Gee said. “But it’s of small restaurants, small family owned businesses and we really don’t have any 170 seat venues with live music.”

Neither Gee nor Isaacs were moved by testimony from Joe Welch, owner of New England Noise Abatement, who appeared on behalf of Havana’s and said owner John Davis’ plan to install new windows and sound-proofing curtains would provide better insulation than what airports use.

Welch said the curtains would be enough to block any noise generated inside the building from coming through. That, along with insulation in the attic space on the upper floor, would border on “overkill” in terms of sound abatement. 

“I think the curtains will be more than enough, but John is going to go with windows and curtains,” Welch said, noting he’s never encountered a situation in which a restaurant faced such scrutiny nor was willing to invest so much money to appease a community’s concerns. 

“I’ve never needed to do a restaurant before and we’ve done over 15,000 buildings around the United States,” he said.

Gee and Isaacs also reportedly didn’t seem moved by comments in support of Havana’s by EG resident Howard Gewandter, also a prominent CEO, who said it would be absurd for someone like Davis to come and spend $1.5 million renovating and upgrading an historic building only to blow it with noise or other problems. He also said the town needs diverse food options and Cuban food is something different and unique.

“It would be ludicrous to put that kind of money into it and break the rules and get the license yanked,” Gewandter said.

Gewandter said he was the CEO of a major development and architectural company and in his lengthy career building some of the top restaurants in the world in urban and residential settings, including the building of three quarters of the Starbucks in the world, “I’ve never seen anyone spend that kind of money to insulate and put up that type of remediation into a building to soundproof it. I just don’t see where you wouldn’t vote on that favorably.”

Councilor Michael S. Kiernan appeared dismayed by the opposition from his fellow council members and warned them they could be making a huge mistake by essentially punishing an application for the mistakes made by Rok Bar and Grill. 

“I think to deny this chance for them is irresponsible government intervention,” he said. “We’re regulating before they even give them a chance.”

Kiernan also bristled at the suggestion by Gee and Isaacs — along with resident Sam Scott — that granting the license might lead to a slippery slope, much how Rok Bar was pitched as dinner first, dancing later and in the end, became a sore spot for the neighborhood.

“There’s no basis for denying this,” Kiernan said, saying the Town Council can easily revoke a license if there are problems.

“There’s no basis for denying this other than people before them messed up and to me that does not sit well, it doesn’t fly. To me, it’s government gone awry,” he said. 

Councilor Jeffry B. Cianciolo concurred, saying the applicant’s lawyer, Steven Litwin, already made it clear that getting the license would be viewed as a privilege and one that can be taken away. 

“I think its an overreach,” Cianciolo said.

And Havana’s has support from the East Greenwich Chamber of Commerce. 

“I think that Mr. Davis has given indication of how he’s willing to play by the rules of the town and to go above and beyond so everyone is happy and satisfied,” Glenn Fontaine of the chamber said. “He’s not going to be a thorn in the side of neighbors and wants to be a part of the fabric of the community.” 

Still, Gee said he just didn’t like the idea of Havana’s, noting he can see getting a glass of wine but the notion of people in their 30s or 40s coming for a high class nightclub experience doesn’t seem realistic.

Litwin bristled at the suggestion by Gee that Havana’s would “play a game” and litigate against the town. 

“This man understands the rules of the game,” he said, pointing at Davis. “He’s overkilling the building. Now you don’t like the concept? We all don’t like concepts. Somewhere, he’d be allowed to have a restaurant and allowed to have entertainment.” 

“This gentlemen is here to enforce your rules,” Litwin said, pointing to the police chief. “Let him enforce them. It’s not about having a chance to do it. It’s about having a right to it and whether we treat that right with respect or abuse it.” 

Litwin noted that the first thing said to him at the start of this whole process was that Rok Bar screwed up and some council members were still upset. 

And Davis said he was dismayed that Havana’s was being compared to Rok Bar just because entertainment is a core component of the Havana’s plan. 

“When you make the comparison that the concept sounds similar to Rok Bar, I do take a little offense,” he said, nothing he will hire an executive chef with a six figure salary. 

“Rok Bar had fry cooks,” he said. “There is no comparison.”

Rok Bar had “Wild Wednesdays” with a mechanical bull, Davis said. 

“We’re talking about a classy brass band, not about three Coronas in a bucket,” Davis said. 

“What more can I do?” he asked.

In a twist that could have changed outcomes, Councilor Bradford Bishop was absent from the meeting. Though Bishop indicated he would likely vote against the proposal at the previous public hearing, he hinted that he might have been swayed with detailed testimony from the sound engineer. In fact, it was Bishop’s statements that prompted Welch to appear Monday night.

After the vote, Litwin, Davis, Welch and a prominent restaurant consultant gathered in the hallway. Their frustration was evident.

Litwin said he would seek clarification on exactly what type of entertainment would be allowed after the 3-1 vote for vocal and instrumental entertainment. 

Inga Jensen Byleckie June 10, 2014 at 11:39 AM
Living near the proposed restaurant I am very grateful for this news. I must say though I don't feel it is just a matter of notice from music. To bring in, what is essentially a nightclub, is the wrong way to go for East Greenwich.

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